Best reads of 2022
There are many books I enjoyed reading in 2022, and learned much from. Four of them stand out as the most insightful. Let me start with the one on Pakistan by Mohammed Waseem, among the country’s leading academics. Titled ‘Political Conflict in Pakistan’ it assesses the country’s political experience through the construct of conflict. Waseem sees political conflict in Pakistan as pervasive and the root of “ a permanent crisis of governance.” This, he argues, is because of the gap between the modern state and traditional society, between institutional design and practice and between “a ‘Western’ framework of authority and Islamic norms and practices.”
In the chapter called‘ An Establishmentarian Democracy’ he deals with an issue as relevant today as in the past, being among the country’s enduring fault lines. Arguing that democracy has been a major source of conflict, he examines whether Pakistan’s present hybrid regime is democratic only in form and not substance. To support his claim that Pakistan is what he describes as an ‘establishmentarian democracy’ he shows that the establishment was able to significantly shape the contours of democracy while the weak role of parliament contributed to this. Some may find this an overly cynical view that accords the establishment more controlling power over the political system than is merited. But few would disagree that the military’s dominant role “hampered the growth of democracy ” or that civil-military conflict has been a constant theme. He acknowledges that “while the constitutional tradition has been too weak to stop military takeovers, it has been too strong to allow generals to rule in their own name for long.” This is a must-read book for anyone interested in the many facets of Pakistan’s story.
There has been a profusion of books about the world’s most consequential relationship – between the US and China. Most are written from a Western viewpoint.
The second book is Henry Kissinger’s ‘Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy’. This joins a long-running debate about the role of individuals in history and whether they can bring about change in society. Where Kissinger stands in this debate is clear from his assertion that "without leadership institutions drift and nations court growing irrelevance and ultimately, disaster.” His book considers six case studies of global leaders to draw general conclusions about leadership. The common traits of these leaders are that they were bold, decisive, possessed intellectual ability, had a powerful vision and strong sense of reality. They all came from middle-class backgrounds which enabled them to understand what ordinary citizens wanted. They did not hesitate to court controversy or offend entrenched interests. That Kissinger deems is “the price of making history.”
I found the discussion of Lee Kuan Yew the most compelling. Kissinger writes with admiration about a man who changed the destiny of an impoverished, multiethnic city-state and transformed it into a prosperous and stable country that found impressive unity in diversity and established peace with previously hostile neighbors. He never externalized Singapore’s challenges nor sought outside help to meet them. Kissinger posits that one of the essential qualities of leaders is to avoid being carried away by the mood of the moment. He rightly places the Singaporean leader in the genre of those who dared to go against the grain.
There has been a profusion of books about the world’s most consequential relationship – between the US and China. Most are written from a Western viewpoint. Published in 2020, Kishore Mahbubani’s ‘Has China Won?’ offers a thoughtful and balanced perspective by identifying strategic mistakes made by both global powers.
Mahubani argues that America is committing the “classic strategic mistake of fighting tomorrow’s war with yesterday’s strategy” as it is treating the China challenge similar to the old Soviet threat. The US is focusing on military spending, displaying rigidity decision-making, draining its power by involvement in military conflicts, and misreading China by erroneously attributing expansionist designs to Beijing. All this because groupthink rules in Washington.
He argues convincingly that while China wants to “rejuvenate its civilization” it has no mission to take over the world or recreate it in its image. Despite its growing power, China has not intervened in the affairs of other countries. The militarism attributed to it is mistaken because it has never sought to conquer territories and despite “often being the single strongest civilization in the Eurasian landmass” for over two thousand years. In fact, China’s “primary goal is to preserve peace and harmony” at home, not influence the lives of people who live outside.
Mahbubani’s critique of America’s flawed assumptions is as compelling as his analysis of China’s strategic mistake in “alienating” the US business community ( by “squeezing companies”) that could have restrained Washington’s confrontational approach. His conclusion, by his own admission, is paradoxical: the contest between the two “is both inevitable and avoidable”. His hope is that if both focus on their core national interest – improving the wellbeing of their citizens – they will find no contradictions in their long-term interests.
The fourth book I found to be a great read is ‘The Age of the Strongman: how the Cult of the Leader threatens Democracy around the World’ by Gideon Rachman. This is a sharply-written exposition of a phenomenon witnessed across the world since 2000 of self-styled strongman leaders in countries such as the US, India, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, China and Poland. Rachman says typically such leaders are nationalists, populists and cultural conservatives who are anti-minority and xenophobic, show contempt for the rule of law and disregard for the interests of foreigners and who claim to stand up for ordinary citizens against national and global elites. They build a cult of personality, invent enemies and resort to authoritarian methods. They often use economic grievances and fear of migrants or minorities to mobilize support. This has fundamentally changed world politics and involved “the most sustained global assault on liberal democratic values since the 1930s.”
Rachman argues persuasively that the characteristics of strongman leadership span both democracies and dictatorships, citing Narendra Modi’s India as a case in point. Modi is one of the book’s several case studies that also includes Trump, Putin and Erdogan. Rachman writes that while the Indian leader’s politics echoes the populist and nationalist themes pivotal to the appeal of strongman leaders elsewhere, the distinctively Indian twist is Modi’s championing of the ideology of Hindutva. Like other populists, he has become more autocratic and arbitrary while his government’s discriminatory policies and practices against Muslims have intensified.
For Rachman, there is hope that strongman rule would not last long as he sees it as an inherently unstable and flawed form of government. But he concludes there may be a lot of “suffering and turmoil” before the Age of the Strongman is finally consigned to history.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha